Essays: High-speed maggots |
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High-speed maggots

BAD sight of the week was in an episode of Horizon (BBC2) dealing with high-speed and time-lapse photography. Speeded up several hundred times, a gang of maggots devoured a dead mouse.

Before time-lapse photography was invented, it was always assumed that maggots, though they travelled in packs, did their actual eating on an individual basis. But time-lapse photography reveals that they dine as a group. ‘They are swimming in one another’s juices,’ explained the voice-over. First they were all over the mouse’s head like a cloche hat. Then they were around its neck like a feather boa fluttering in the wind. Then they were around its waist like a grass skirt worn by a particularly active hula dancer. Then they were sliding down past its hips like a dress being rapidly removed by an impatient lover. By this stage you had to remind yourself of the necessity to breathe.

Leonardo da Vinci never saw anything like that. He had the fastest eyes in Christendom but they couldn't quite stop a galloping horse, although they could slow it down enough for him to draw it better than anyone had drawn a galloping horse before. But if time-lapse photography can tell you fascinating things about maggots, high-speed photography can tell you even more fascinating things about cuttlefish. High-speed photography slows cuttlefish down by roughly the same amount that time-lapse photography speeds maggots up. You are then able to see how two cuttlefish combine to deceive a crab. One cuttlefish creates a diversion while the other gets into position for a stern attack. Then — zap! Or, as interpreted by high-speed photography, zzzzaaaappp. Exit the crab.

On News Headlines (BBC2, with subtitles for the hard of hearing) Kenneth Kendall referred to punk rock star Johnny Rotten as just plain ‘Rotten.’ Rotten, it was revealed, had assaulted a pub owner who had refused him a drink. There was a photograph of Rotten to help you understand why an otherwise tolerant man might be reluctant to supply him with intoxicating beverages. Rotten got three months.

Everybody who grew up with rock and roll in the Fifties has his own story about how the music eventually went sour on him. My own story turns on the personality of Rotten. About twenty years after my psyche was first liberated by Bill Haley and the Comets, I encountered the Sex Pistols in a television studio. It was the first television show that the Sex Pistols, headed by the aforesaid Rotten, ever did. I could see the point of their anger. I even thought that their music had a certain vigour. But they had set out to be repellent and in my case they achieved their aim instantly. Rotten himself was a cuttlefish in human form, snapping in every direction at a speed which benumbed the eye. It would have taken high-speed photography to show just how nasty he actually was.

And yet it all started with innocence, as the old films and videotapes dredged up by the BBC’s ‘Rock Week’ unanimously proved. It was particularly moving to take another look at Rock Around the Clock (BBC1), a film which even on its first release had the symmetrical beauty of an old shoe. The term ‘exploitation movie’ in those days meant what it said. The budget barely stretched to retakes. Twelve extras represented a crowded dance-hall, and turned up again half a reel later to represent a crowded nightclub. But the music sounded like a miracle at the time and I’m bound to say that to me it still does. Haley, already a veteran when the film was made, had barely launched into the opening bars of the title song before I was out of my chair and leaping about in the style which once had my fellow dancers standing back in admiration, or at any rate fear.

Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll (BBC2) was a long and absorbing compilation of rock clips clumsily linked by an actor. ‘Hi. I’m Jeff Bridges.’ But the bad chat was no great drawback, since right from the beginning the music had always been accompanied by cheap link material and dumb voice-overs. In ‘Rock Around the Clock’ you couldn’t have Fats Domino or the Platters without a few badly chosen words from Alan Freed to introduce the act.

Clips from Elvis Presley’s old TV shows showed him for what he was — rhythm incarnate. In short order the television producers were told by their executives to shoot Elvis only from the waist up, but before that happened there was a brief, glorious period in which his entire range of movement was made visible to the waiting world. Standing on his toes, he could wag his knees so far to one side that his behind touched the floor. I once almost got a hernia in my ear trying that. As a dancer Elvis was always at his best when choreographing himself, as he did in Jailhouse Rock (BBC1), whose Leiber/Stoller songs still come up as fresh as paint.

But the rarest of the many entrancing things in ‘Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll’ was the sight it afforded of Phil Spector engaged in the actual creation of the Wall of Sound. Even today I still play my Crystals and Ronettes albums on those occasions when my spirits need lifting and soothing at the same time. Spector had the gift of cool excitement. Nobody growing up with popular music now could possibly imagine how witty rock and roll used to be.

Still, the young must have their music. That was how rock and roll started in the first place — that your parents couldn’t stand the sight or sound of it was the whole idea. If one were able to keep in touch with what is happening now then what is happening now wouldn’t really be happening. Nevertheless Kate Bush in Concert (BBC2) sort of made you wonder. I thought ‘Wuthering Heights’ was a terrific single: the lyrics were patent drivel but the melodic line passed the old grey whistle test with flying colours and one found oneself turning up the volume in order to catch the last bars of that exultant guitar solo at the end. Kate has talent to burn.

But she is also a weirdo. For her opening number she appeared in a luminous leotard with Superman trunks, a hairstyle like an exploding armchair, and bare feet. Thus got up, she groped around in the gloom, perhaps looking for her band, who were making a hell of a noise somewhere back there behind the dry-ice fumes. At this point I went away and had a little lie-down. When I came back she was dressed as a white hunter and pointing a rifle at the camera-man. It was all a long way from the Crystals or even from Joni Mitchell, who in Shadows of Light (BBC2) was to be heard trilling some latterday additions to the repertoire that seemed the last word in sophistication ten years ago, but nowadays sounds more than a little twee.

Making ‘The Shining’ (BBC2) was a small programme by Vivian Kubrick about her father’s big new movie. All concerned conspired to worship Stanley — including, alas, Stanley. Jack Nicholson told of how Stanley had pushed him into an acting style beyond naturalism. Clips of Jack in action proved that there is no acting style beyond naturalism except ham.

The Observer, 12th October 1980
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]